Friday, March 2, 2007

World Understanding in the ‘00s: A Conciliation of Civilizations?

On reading Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial 1993 essay, World Politics in the ‘90s: A Clash of Civilizations? I was struck by its terrifying assumptions. It matter-of-factly laid out his case for strife among civilizations being the next catalyst to world conflict, succeeding political and economic conflict among nation states. His scenario pointed in particular to the coming clash between the religious civilizations of Christianity and Islam.

It disturbed me that this essay by a Harvard professor of strategic studies and influential insider in U.S. government affairs came as the world was breathing a sigh of relief over the thaw in the cold war. It cast a chill on hopes for a widely anticipated “peace dividend.”

The essay’s implications rang untrue to me. As an anthropologist who has lived for over three decades among peoples and nations with cultural values, religions and ways of life vastly different from our own, I knew that such an ethnocentric analysis could be misused in the emerging climate of cultural and economic globalism.

If there were one fundamental piece of wisdom that I learned from my years of immersion in other cultures, it was that there are no absolute certainties regarding the human condition. If anything, there are many erroneous views on how human beings and society think and operate. And these are very frequently held among the leadership and general populace in ill-informed nation states such as our own.

It seemed to me that the charged word “clash” had been generated by a mentality seeing reality in absolutist terms, whose use ran the danger of becoming fuel in a self-fulfilling prophesy of global strife.

Recently to the contrary, the British Broadcasting Company completed a major worldwide poll among 28,000 people in 27 countries, asking the question whether there was in fact a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East. The respondents replied with a resounding no. The poll concluded that the conflict was within the realm of politics and economics, not in the inherent humanity or religion of the people. Rather, extreme religious ideology became a player in the conflict as a result, not a cause, of the current ecopolitical crisis.

My anthropological experiences agree with the collective wisdom of the poll. I had spend considerable time in Islamic society, in both urban and rural Turkey. In the course of my research there during the 1960’s, I encountered relative ease of communication and of living among the people.

There was a widespread sense among us of “taking for granted” our mutual “otherness,” then proceeding from there in a jointly rewarding manner. We accepted one anothers’ distinct differences in outlook and cultural style with general good humor and with implicit respect for the integrity of ourselves and cultures.

What I took home from the experience was the basic goodness and hospitality of villagers and urbanites alike in Turkish society, when unchallenged by alien ethnocentric notions and machinations. Here, and in my later studies among Native Americans and Tibetans, it was evident that when people were comfortable within their own skins and living in basic harmony within each their own unique cultural circumstances, they were just as you and I would wish for our own families, neighbors and society to be. Their version of the human condition worked acceptably for them, allowing their people to generally prosper and to achieve an appropriate degree of cultural harmony.

Like people worldwide, the people of Turkey strove to make the most of life in their own ways. And, they held sacred a code of decency and hospitality toward strangers. Although filtered through the prescriptions and customs of their Islamic creed, their way in the world was ultimately the measure of their own humanity, which knows no cultural boundaries. My experience in the traditional Middle East left a warm spot in my heart – and no doubt would have been there even if I were not trained in the central anthropological ideal of cultural relativism.

The term cultural relativism is worth a few words of explanation. It recognizes that all aspects of a culture - its works, creative arts and ideals - are appropriate to the environment and history of its people. While they might appear contradictory to elements in the cultures of others, they serve to maintain an intelligible system of life for their people – which is all that counts.

This obvious realization arose within 19th century America’s fledgling field of anthropology along with another understanding called, “the psychic unity of mankind.” It pointed out that all human beings, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of their ways of life, are equipped with the identical mental potential.

Both ideas were promulgated by Franz Boas, who was responsible, probably more than any other person, for humanizing anthropology in America. He was deeply concerned with the influence that social darwinism and evolutionism held over the late Victorian European worldview. They posited biologically-determined, evolutionary stages of culture, which ranged in succession from savagery to barbarism to civilization. The scheme was much like biology’s Linnaean tree of evolution of plant and animal species, but applied to human life. Savage was simple and crude; civilized was (more desirably) complex and refined.

Native peoples, who were seriously compromised in the course of colonial conquest, appeared to fit the bill in this scheme. They were considered savage if they held to a “simple” hunting or gathering pattern of living, or barbaric, if they were nomadic herders or basic gardening peoples.

From this false scheme of simple to complex, came a deluded social interpretation of evolution. “Red in tooth and claw,” as the biological evolutionists labelled the wildness of animal life, was applied to human patterns of culture. The savage and barbaric were thought to be by nature in constant conflict among themselves. Never mind that warfare was actually invented by early civilizations to protect and further acquire their great stores of surplus wealth.

But Boas would have none of this nonsense. He knew from extensive sojourns among native peoples that they were no less human than those in the wild and disturbed cities of America and Europe. If anything they had devised over many millennia, quite successful strategies for maintaining sustainable societies in their regions of the world.

So in order to correctly understand other human beings, Boas realized that all cultures must be seen as integral entities, making rational decisions cross-generationally about how to proceed in the most effective and harmonious manner. And with this realization came the understanding that so-called pre-civilized peoples were full fledged human beings, and in no way inferior to civilized peoples. All humans were possessed of the same psychic unity.

With that background I read Huntington‘s essay on the clash of civilizations. How in this day and age, I wondered, could an academician be such a simpleton in implying that if your religion and culture are significantly different, you could be fated to be antagonists or even enemies? It suggested that, like the Victorian vision of non-Western peoples, we were again in an “us against them; red in tooth and claw” world reality, where only the fittest will survive.

Perhaps this delusionary worldview stems from the inherent instability in the most recent of human cultural experiments, civilization itself. Huntington himself alluded to civilization being destined by nature to arise then collapse. There are always great upheavals in the life cycle of human civilizations. But they stem mainly from the dualism and rancor generated by “being civilized,” and less so from the cultural and religious systems underlying any civilization. Consider the fates of the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, Mayans and Incas. It was civilization that did them in; it was culture and religion that kept them going.

That George Bush and his neo-conned cohorts could cleave to the model of a clash of civilizations outlined in Huntington’s essay, and allow this throwback vision of human life to rear its head in the land of the greatest cultural genocide in human history (against its native peoples), is a measure of how far this society has fallen from being civilized - in the better sense of the term.

But the coin has its two sides. And the clash now being generated from our side through the neo-colonial rampage of globalization, can yet lead us to a conciliation of civilizations. Despite our deluded notions, the reality of life is that all humans hold the same hopes and dreams; we are all the same at our deepest roots. And when, finally, the deadening notion of the separateness of humanity is finally debunked, the ignorance that invokes clash instead of conciliation in global human affairs will no longer find support and, hopefully, vanish.

I remember a comment made by a Navajo philosopher on his cultural concept of diné, meaning “people, living beings.” He explained that in the world there are two and four legged people; there are flying, crawling and swimming people. And in the web of life, he continued, “we are all relatives,” which requires respect toward them all. Then the Navajo elder raised his hands, saying, “and all human beings are the same; do we not each have five fingers on our hands?”

You are rightly proud of your material culture,
but you must not think peoples without it are necessarily uncivilized.
Civilization and material culture are not one in the same.
Your peasants have but few of the things your townsmen enjoy,
yet they are no less civilized: they may indeed be more.
It is a question of spiritual outlook.
- Rinchen Lhamo,
a Tibetan woman speaking to the early 20th century British –

1 comment:

A. Olson said...

I appreciated your essay on "World Understanding in the '00s: A Conciliation of Civilizations?" As the world struggles so with our versions of 'difference' and in what ways we are in fact so connected and all a part of the whole, our challenge seems to remain in our varying degrees of tolerance and understanding. At the core is the need for a true respect for all life on the planet, and by extension it won't be such a leap to accomodate and even celebrate the diversity among us, whether by ethnicity, religion, or cultural differences. The difficulty seems to be age old, and our time to 'catch up' with a true world wisdom feels short indeed. Please note, if you wish, my uncle's research, which columnated in his book Faith and Prejudice, Yale Press, by Dr. Bernhard E. Olson.
Anything that can, should be done, to help build the sorts of understanding and bridges among nations and peoples. I encourage you to continue to seek out the organizations that can help to promote and disseminate in every manner useful, the breadth of the understanding you've spent a lifetime studying.

A. Olson